INDIANAPOLIS -- "Messing up? You can't play this game scared to mess up."
Stephen Gostkowski drives the point home. After the AFC Championship he said didn't want to keep talking about Billy Cundiff. But later, safe at a Super Bowl media session, he acquiesced.
Thrill seekers wanted details.
Cundiff's moment was grotesque. The Patriots might have gone to the Super Bowl even if they'd had to play overtime against Baltimore, but they definitely went because the Ravens' kicker shanked the game-tying field goal.
32 Wide Left: A new spin on the Scott Norwood classic.
Super screw-ups. Game-changing failures that fans gnash their teeth over decades after the fact. Plays that, in the playoff clime of one-and-done, can turn an athlete's name into a curse word.
Understanding the fragility of circumstance is one of the ties that binds these athletes. It's about realizing how small the difference is between surrendering, or stopping, a game-winning touchdown; between kicking a routine chip shot or losing a playoff game with your foot.
As Gostkowski says, they can't play scared. They have to face their football mortality and move on.
"We're at the top of the professional level," he notes. "Everybody's had success before, everybody's dealt with failure before. It's the ones who get over the mistakes that play for a really long time."
The Patriots kicker didn't see Cundiff's miss. It was cold that night. When Gostkowski saw the Ravens' field-goal team trot out -- for a kickCundiff had practiced and executed so many times before --he busied himself warming up on New England's sideline for overtime.
"It's unfortunate. It's heartbreaking. This game is so publicized and so criticized . . . But that's just part of it," Gostkowski shrugs. "It humbles you to see that can happen to anybody; the guy was an All Pro last year. I'm 100 percent glad that we won, but I felt bad for him personally."
The reactions are not mutually exclusive; it's not simply, 'Better you than me.' Gostkowski started celebrating New England's Super Bowl berth as soon as he heard Patriots fans explode into cheers.
But Cundiff's condemnation as a goat brought Gostkowski no joy.
"It's one of the few things that I don't like about this job. We're so blessed, grateful for all the things that we've received, that we get to do, the job that we have. I feel bad, not only for the guys like Billy Cundiff and Kyle Williams that it happens to, but for the people that send those messages out.
"I know how hard the players work; they probably feel worse than any of those people who are saying stuff to them."
An estimated 173 million people will be watching the Super Bowl this Sunday.
"I'm trying to treat it just like any other game," says defensive back Sterling Moore, "not put too much pressure on myself, just trying to keep a level head. But of course, there's going to be a little bit more pressure when you look up in the stands and realize this is the last game of the season. Everybody's watching this game."
Patriots versus Giants: Gladiators in the ring. One false move and you could be over. And the fans always go nuts for a kill-strike.
So it goes in the entertainment industry.
The Patriots want to fight, want to win. But their perspective of the sport, watching from the windows of their NFL fraternity, is different. Special teams captain Matthew Slater says it must be.
"At the end of the day, football doesn't define who we are. The type of character that we live our lives with off the field is really all that matters. This is a game -- a game that we love and put a lot into -- but it doesn't define who you are as a man. It's important to remember that."
Never more important than on Super Bowl Sunday. And never more difficult to do so.